BEIRUT

Culture

Lacoste censors artist from competition for being pro-Palestinian

  • “Nation Estate – Main Lobby”

  • “Nation Estate – Jerusalem Floor”

  • “Nation Estate – Olive Tree”

BEIRUT: The French clothing brand Lacoste has demanded that Jerusalem-born artist Larissa Sansour be removed from the shortlist of the Lacoste Elysée photography prize, because it regards the artist’s work “too pro-Palestinian.”

A prestigious competition, whose winner receives 25,000 euros (approximately $32,770) in cash, the Lacoste Elysée Prize is sponsored by Lacoste and awarded by Switzerland’s Musée de l’Elysée.

Sansour was among eight artists who received word in November that they’d been shortlisted for the 2011 prize. In December, Lacoste demanded that her nomination be revoked. Spokesmen stated the company refused to support Sansour’s work, which it labelled “too pro-Palestinian.” A jury will convene in January 2012 to select the winner.

Like the other nominees, Sansour was awarded a bursary of 4,000 euros (approximately $5,240) and given carte blanche to produce a portfolio of images for the final adjudication.

In November 2011, Sansour said, three photos – sketches for her proposed “Nation Estate” project – were accepted, and the prize’s administrators congratulated the artist for her work and professionalism. Sansour’s name was included on all the literature relating to the prize and on the website as an official nominee.

Her name has since been removed from the prize’s website, and her project has been withdrawn from an impending issue of the contemporary art magazine “ArtReview,” which is set to announce the nominees.

The artist says she was asked to sign-off on a statement saying that she withdrew from her nomination “in order to pursue other opportunities.” She refused to do so.

“I am very sad and shocked by this development,” Sansour said in a press release issued in response to the Lacoste Elysée Prize decision. “Palestine was officially admitted to UNESCO recently, yet we are still being silenced.

“As a politically involved artist I am no stranger to opposition, but never before have I been censored by the very same people who nominated me in the first place. Lacoste’s prejudice and censorship puts a major dent in the idea of corporate involvement in the arts. It is deeply worrying.”

Sansour’s work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, film festivals and art publications worldwide. Primarily known as a video artist and photographer, the 30-something Sansour mingles aesthetic and political concerns with a sly sense of humor.

Her work oscillates from playful-looking works like “Bethlehem Bandolero” (in which she strides through her home town dressed as a cowboy, en route to a confrontation with Israel’s separation wall) and “Happy Days,” which also deploys mainstream pop culture forms, to open-up the spectator’s mind to Palestinian realities.

Sansour’s other work documents her family’s contest with the occupation regime surrounding Bethlehem. The best-known of these works is her 2006 video “Mloukhieh (Soup over Bethlehem),” which opens on the rooftop of the Sansour’s Bethlehem home, where the family’s gathered for meal of mloukhieh. As Sansour suggests, the dish is one component of a multi-faceted Palestinian identity that has been fragmented but not destroyed by Israeli occupation.

The new work shortlisted for the Lacoste l’Elysée Prize is entitled “Nation Estate.”

Seemingly taking its departure from the science fiction premises of her short film “A Space Exodus,” which competed in the Short Film category of the Dubai film festival a couple of years back, the photo series depicts a futuristic Palestinian state: a single skyscraper that houses all the Palestinian people.

Within this new Nation Estate, residents have recreated their lost cities on separate floors. “Jerusalem” is on the third floor, for instance, while “Ramallah” is on the fourth. Sansour’s hometown of Bethlehem is on the fifth floor.

“I think the most shocking thing about this development, is that I didn’t apply for this prize,” Sansour told The Daily Star from London. “They nominated [me] only to revoke my nomination later on grounds that my work is ‘too pro-Palestinian.’”

She said it was important to note that the museum had congratulated her for her professionalism because it underlines that her name was not removed from the shortlist for not meeting the requirements.

“Last week the director of the museum calls me and says that unfortunately a high ranking someone at Lacoste (nobody knows his name) demanded that I be taken off the list of nominees.

“The strange thing is that Lacoste was in on [the selection] process from the very beginning, so they were fully aware of my work when they nominated me.

“What seems to have struck them is the content of this new work [which] is inspired by the Palestinian bid [for official status at the United Nations.] That appears to have been too controversial for Lacoste.”

For its part, Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée has expressed its regret at Lacoste’s decision to censor Sansour’s work and has offered to exhibit “Nation Estate” in a context separate from the Lacoste-sponsored prize.

Lacoste spokesmen were unavailable for comment. Spokespersons for the Musée de l’Elysée were contacted, but no statement was forthcoming as this page went to press.

The 2011 edition of the Lacoste Elysée Prize is its second. The artists remaining on the shortlist are France’s Charles Fréger, Matthieu Gafsou, from Switzerland and France, Olivier Metzger, also from Switzerland and France, Trish Morrissey, from Ireland and the U.K., Switzerland’s Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, Germany’s Anna Skladmann and Russia’s Julia Smirnova.

The first edition of the prize was won by Chinese photographer Di Liu, who was chosen from a pack of twelve shortlisted artists.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, meanwhile, has denounced the Lacoste Elysée Prize’s decision.

“Excluding one of Bethlehem’s foremost artists on the grounds that her work is too pro-Palestinian isn’t much of a present for an artist from the town where Christmas and Christianity was born,” said PSC Campaigns Officer, Sara Apps.

“Would they exclude works by a British artist on the grounds they were too pro-British, or an Israeli artist for being pro-Israel? It is a bizarre decision and is another example of the commonplace silencing of Palestinians,” Apps continued. “We urge Lacoste Elysee to reconsider their position or stand accused of being anti-Palestinian.”

For more information on Sansour’s work, see www.larissasansour.com

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2011, on page 16.
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